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ON SECOND THOUGHT

R.A. Dickey’s success makes an old knuckler smile

Knuckleball specialist Wilbur Wood won 20 games four times, but never won a Cy Young Award.

JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF

Knuckleball specialist Wilbur Wood won 20 games four times, but never won a Cy Young Award.

Wilbur Wood has never met R.A. Dickey, but the two are bonded at the fingertips.

Wood grew up in Belmont, signed with the Red Sox out of Belmont High in 1960, and eventually developed a mesmerizing knuckleball that helped him string together four 20-win seasons with the White Sox in the 1970s.

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Dickey, a proud son of Tennessee and ace of the Mets staff, just became the first knuckleballer ever to win the Cy Young Award. In 100-plus years of big league baseball, only some 80 pitchers have made their careers off the knuckler. And now, after all those innings, and all those decades, and all the disrespect heaped on a pitch and those who dared throw it, the knuckleball finally has class, charisma, and a seat right there next to Bob Uecker in the front row.

Or does it?

“I’m very happy for Dickey, I really am,’’ Wood said Friday, ticking through the names of other renowned knuckleballers, including Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil Niekro, and Tim Wakefield. “But did I think he would get it? I really didn’t, if you want to know the truth, because no one else has done it.

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“I mean, he had all the numbers, don’t get me wrong, and he deserved every bit of it . . .

“But you know, there’s been a way of people saying, ‘Ah, he throws a freak pitch.’ So they figure, ‘Ah, we’ll go with a fastball, curveball, slider, so forth and so on.’’

Oh, but that’s sure to change now. Shouldn’t Dickey’s magnificent season (20-6, 2.73 ERA in 33 starts, 233 innings) and his Cy Young Award once and for all convince the baseball world that the knuckler is no gimmick? All that matters is the result, those 20 wins and but a half-dozen losses.

Fastball, curve, slider, or knuckler. Who cares how the message gets sent? Only results matter.

Kids across the country, and a whole bunch more in the Dominican Republic, now will have to embrace (ever so delicately, of course), the dipping, soaring, confounding pitch that the 38-year-old Dickey sent fluttering right into the record book, right?

“Ah, I would doubt it very much,’’ said Wood, now 71 and living in Bedford, and still working part-time as a pharmaceutical representative. “There are just too few who throw it.

“I mean, you know, there are many who can throw it, be it infielders or outfielders, but they’ve only got one problem: They can’t throw it over the plate.’’

Wood is probably right, and he may be his own best proof. If he didn’t change baseball’s mind-set, who will? His run in the 1970s was astounding, to the point that by comparison it humbles Dickey’s accomplishments.

Consider:

  In Wood’s formidable four-year run (1971-74) when he won 20 or more each season, he not only compiled a 90-69 record, he also made 181 starts and pitched 1,390 innings. In two of those seasons (1972-73), he led the major leagues in innings, averaging a whopping 368.

Asked if he iced down his durable left arm after games, Wood chuckled, “Ice? Let me tell ya, there was no ice in those days. Damn little, let’s put it that way.

“Sure, it was around, but you rarely saw it. Guys only used it if maybe they sprained an ankle or hurt a knee. No ice.

“And you threw, all the time. None of this five-, six-, seven-man rotation stuff. You were out there with the ball in your hand every four days. You didn’t want to get out of the groove, the routine. To be honest, I couldn’t go every five or six days. I had to pitch.’’

  For all his mastery, Wood never finished better than second (1972) in the Cy Young voting. In those four brilliant seasons, he lost out to the likes of Vida Blue (24-8) in 1971, Gaylord Perry (24-16) in ’72, Jim Palmer (22-9) in ’73, and Jim “Catfish” Hunter (25-12) in ’74. Of those four Cy Young winners, all but Blue made it to the Hall of Fame. Palmer and Hunter each had 20-win streaks lasting four years or more. Perry won 20 games in five seasons, but never put any back-to-back.

“I came close, yeah, no cigar, but I came close,’’ said Wood. “I was beat out by some damn good pitchers, but in my case, it would have been a stroke of luck anyway. I mean, I pitched, hell, well over 300 innings several years in a row. But I was able do it, had fun doing it.’’

Asked if by saying “stroke of luck,’’ he meant that the knuckleball’s lack of esteem held him back in the Cy Young balloting, he said, “Absolutely!’’

  Ever-durable, Wood started both ends of a doubleheader in the Bronx on July 20, 1973, losing both to the Yankees. Nearly 40 years later, doubleheaders have all but vanished from the schedule and no pitcher since Wood has taken the ball for two starts in the same day. The last pitcher to start and win both ends: Cleveland’s Emil Levsen in 1926.

“I got the crap kicked out of me in two games,’’ said Wood, laughing at the memory. “The first game didn’t go well. And then I said [to manager Chuck Tanner], ‘Hey, I’ll take the ball for the second game.’ And that one didn’t go well either.’’

Nowadays, Wood doesn’t make it to Fenway but still follows the game on TV, usually from the comfort of his porch. And though his glimpses of the National League are few, he likes what he’s seen of Dickey on TV. They are kindred spirits in a sense, given that both hurlers toiled unsuccessfully for years and then turned to the knuckler as a last resort.

“Pretty simple why I did it,’’ mused Wood, tutored by Wilhelm on the pitch upon arriving in Chicago. “My fastball was about 3 feet too short.’’

It’s a common story line among knuckleballers, including Wakefield. When they sense their careers are stalled or dead-ended, they place thumb, index, and middle fingers across the ball, dial down slightly on their arm strength, then send the ball toward home plate with as little rotation as possible.

The quieter the ball, the bigger its dance across the 60 feet to the batter. For that stretch in the 1970s, every park in the American League was Wood’s ballroom.

“Hey, I’d like to see more of ’em come up,’’ said Wood, noting that there remain some major league teams that refuse to encourage or include knuckleballers on their staffs. “But you know, if it wasn’t for Dickey, who else is throwing it?’’

It’s 2012, and R.A. Dickey has given baseball a lesson, one that Wilbur Wood taught a long time ago. No one paid enough attention back then. In these high-tech times, maybe now someone will give the ol’ knuckler a closer look.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought” appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.
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